France frees British trawler caught in Channel fishing dispute

Boxes of scallops in the port of Granville, France, on Tuesday. Jeremie Gonzalez/Associated Press

LONDON — A UK-registered scallop boat caught in a post-Brexit row between the UK and France over fishing licenses has been released by French authorities, its owner announced on Wednesday.

Andrew Brown, public affairs manager for Macduff Shellfish, owner of the scallop dredge, said the Cornelis Gert Jan had left Le Havre in northern France. French maritime police seized the ship off the coast of Normandy last week and arrested its captain and crew.

The boat, which was detained for a paperwork breach, has become a symbol of a bigger row between the UK and France over fishing rights in the Channel since the UK pulled out of the European Union.

“We are pleased that this matter has been resolved and delighted that our crew and our vessel can now return home,” Brown said. “The crew acted calmly and professionally throughout the incident. They are in good spirits, looking forward to being reunited with their loved ones and are grateful for all the messages of support received from the British public.

The French and British governments have exchanged threats and allegations for weeks over French demands for fishing licenses in British waters. France has complained that dozens of its boats have been denied licenses to fish in waters around Britain and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which are self-governing British Crown dependencies close to the coasts of northern France.

Fishing is a small economic industry for both countries, but one of outsized political importance, and the dispute has turned into a major test for Britain’s relationship with the European Union after Brexit.

France has threatened to close its ports to some British boats and impose strict controls on boats and trucks carrying British goods, if more licenses are not granted. Paris also suggested at one point that it could restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands, which are heavily dependent on French electricity.

The French government initially said it would impose the sanctions if no resolution on the licensing dispute emerged by Tuesday. He pushed back the deadline, then said on Wednesday the measures were on hold until at least Friday, while talks involving French, British and European officials continue.

Britain says a blockade would violate the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and that the issue behind the dispute is a technical problem related to the lack of documents from some French boats to prove that they have traditionally fished in the areas where they want to continue working.

But France sees it as a matter of principle and has accused Britain of breaching its legally binding divorce agreement with the European Union, which sets the rules for fishing in the post-Brexit era.

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were peppered with questions about diplomatic dust as they attended the Group of 20 summit in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last week.

The seized trawler is not among the vessels involved in the licensing dispute, according to the captain’s lawyer. Mathieu Croix, the lawyer for skipper Jondy Ward, said a French court ordered the release of the boat on Wednesday.

The Rouen court overturned last week’s seizure, Croix told The Associated Press. French maritime authorities, who seized the boat in the port of Le Havre last week, did not react immediately to the decision.

Croix said the dredge was “caught up in a political game.”

“There’s a whole story around this whole thing, when in fact it’s a pretty mundane thing about fishing in an area that’s supposed to be off limits and licenses that may or may not have been granted and catch amounts that are relatively modest,” said Cross.

“Since then, given the current political climate, the matter has exploded to levels which, in our view, are grossly disproportionate,” he said.

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